By Mumina Egal and Josh Hawley
On Sept. 29, 2015, tenants from 80 townhouses on one parcel of land in Herongate received eviction notices from their landlord, Timbercreek Asset Management. The tenants were told to be out by Feb. 29, 2016, in the dead of winter.
This was the first round of Timbercreek’s Herongate evictions, and it corresponds with an almost unbelievable rise in homelessness among Ottawa families.
Statistics on homelessness were brought home through several firsthand accounts of tenants’ lived experiences
Chronic homelessness among families rose by 171.3 per cent from 2016–2017, from 87 to 236 families, according to the City of Ottawa’s own data, as presented in the “10-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan Progress Report, 2014–2017.”
Chronic homelessness is defined as being currently homeless while also being homeless for six months in the past year.
The largest spike in those seeking refuge in emergency shelters from 2016–2017 came from families. The total number of individual family members who stayed in emergency shelters rose by 13.1 per cent, far surpassing the overall growth rate of 5.1 per cent.
With a shortage of shelter space, most families were placed in motels and post-secondary residences.
The population for Timbercreek’s Heron Gate property, recorded by Statistics Canada, decreased by 272 people from 2011 to 2016. (The 2016 census date was May 10, 2016, well after the first Timbercreek move-out date). The reduction in population indicates the people who were forced out moved either elsewhere in the city or left the city altogether.
Timbercreek’s Heron Gate property accounts for 92 per cent of the residential land for one entire census tract. This census tract has the highest level of what CMHC calls “core housing need” in the entire city, at 45.5 per cent.
A household is said to be in ‘core housing need’ if it
1) does not meet at least one of the adequacy, affordability or suitability standards; and
2) would have to spend 30 per cent or more of its total before-tax income to pay the median rent of acceptable alternative local housing.
This area also has the highest percentage of immigrants in the city, at 52.4 per cent. It also has the second-highest prevalence of low-income in the city, at 48.1 per cent.
Timbercreek Asset Management is part of the City of Ottawa’s Rent Supplement Program, which allows landlords to offer units to low-income people. The city covers the difference in rent at 30 per cent of the tenant’s income. In 2011, only 9 per cent of people in Timbercreek’s Heron Gate paid a subsidized rent.
Timbercreek received $1,466,434.25 in municipal subsidies from the City of Ottawa from 2012–2017. Yet it has failed to do regular maintenance and repairs, particularly to their Herongate properties, even when issued work orders by the City.
All of these disheartening numbers are directly related to the fact that Timbercreek controls the vast majority of this particular area’s housing. While one for-profit entity, Timbercreek, is linked directly to these cold, hard facts, the day-to-day realities of tenants become ever more difficult. Landlords are incentivized to purposefully neglect their properties in the pursuit of profit and they are often successful in getting away with it.
Stories Behind the Numbers
These numbers present a quantitative, albeit technical, exposition of the racialized poverty, systematic neglect and structural violence to people of colour that is pervasive in Heron Gate.
During the organizing and documentation efforts of the Herongate Tenant Coalition in summer 2018, these statistics were brought home through several firsthand accounts of tenants’ lived experiences, one of which is detailed below.
Timbercreek regularly receives City of Ottawa-issued work orders pertaining to its Heron Gate property, for everything from routine maintenance to major structural repairs. In May 2014, Timbercreek was ordered to do multiple repairs for one particular townhouse located on Heron Road.
In June 2018, at this same townhouse, the Herongate Tenant Coalition documented some of the very same issues mentioned in the city’s work order. Timbercreek did not do the work it was ordered to do by the city and, over the course of four years, the house was left to fall into a state of shocking disrepair.
The house was rented throughout this period by a non-native English-speaking single mother of five, who spoke to The Leveller on the condition of anonymity. She was ultimately forced to move in the late summer after eviction notices were given to 105 households on May 7, 2018. This was the second phase of Timbercreek’s mass eviction.
But first she and her children suffered through a home infestation of cockroaches that caused her to bag her food in garbage bags and resort to using her car in lieu of the kitchen cupboards. A piece of plywood replaced her broken backdoor, as she was not able to pay the almost $1,000 demanded by Timbercreek for the repair.
Mould in the basement prevented anyone from going downstairs. There were broken cupboard doors, holes in the walls, and windows that were decades old.
What emerged through home visits and conversations with this tenant was a clear pattern of neglect by the landlord, Timbercreek Asset Management, and the inadequacy of bylaw officers to properly enforce property standards and City-issued work orders. This pattern was corroborated by documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests obtained by The Leveller.
The original work order for this tenant’s house was issued by the City of Ottawa on May 14, 2014, and demanded that Timbercreek complete the following repairs: “Repair all windows; Repair bedroom doorframes; Repair broken screens, all windows basement main level and upper level windows shall be all equipped with screens; Kitchen ceiling to be repaired; Repair taps in bathtub; Bathroom vanity needs to be repaired holes inside; Repair cupboards, there are holes, repairs cupboard doors as they don’t open and close properly.”
These issues were not addressed by Timbercreek, based on firsthand documentation and the collection of work orders by the Herongate Tenant Coalition in summer 2018 at this very same house.
The work order collected by the Herongate Tenant Coalition and delivered to Timbercreek on August 2, 2018, raised the following issues: “Back door broken; Hole in bathroom door; Cockroaches; Kitchen cupboards broken; Kitchen ceiling has hole; Kitchen windows don’t open; Bathroom sink is broken.”
The tenant was forced to live in these atrocious conditions for years, despite Timbercreek receiving a city-issued work order for these repairs in 2014, which went completely ignored.
As a non-native English speaker, the tenant had less power to advocate for herself to Timbercreek or Bylaw. Ultimately, she could not do anything about the abysmal condition of her home.
Would Timbercreek address these concerns if someone from the dominant society demanded repairs to their units?
Timbercreek has used the strategy of long-term neglect of their properties as a convenient excuse to demolish them and build new homes with a new tenant base, while taking advantage of immigrant and non-English-speaking tenants, forcing them to live in subhuman conditions.